On being a contemporary artist

| February 14, 2014

‘Coming out’ as a contemporary artist is nerve-racking. Corinne Brittain recalls words of caution from disillusioned art lecturers and awkward dinner party conversations.

Being a contemporary artist is not easy. Really. It requires an assemblage of abilities and skills that at first may be not be obvious. A few that spring to mind include tenacity, discipline, problem solving (crucial!) and – this is essential – a well developed (or conversely, totally absent) ego.

On entering ‘Art School’ your first lesson probably won’t be on the harmonious use of the colour wheel, or the formal qualities of Modernism. The latter comes much later – if at all – because really, who cares? No, you first lecture is more likely to be a civil diatribe on the disparate discourses of economics, humility and public service that goes something like this:

SLIGHTLY DISGRUNTLED MID CAREER ARTIST/LECTURER: Well guys, if you think you’re gonna make money out of your art, forget about it. Go and open an art supply store or a framing shop. Guaranteed income.

PALPABLY EAGER STUDENT: But you still (paint/ sculpt/ photograph), don’t you?

SLIGHTLY DISGRUNTLED MID CAREER ARTIST/LECTURER: Yeah (dummy), but that’s because it’s a compulsion, a vocation, a sacred thing. The world needs artists. I don’t do it for fun, you know.

…………and so it goes and continues.

When you’ve been doing this gig for a while, long after the initial bluster that most new artists seem to embrace as a prerequisite to ‘greater things’, when you think you have paid enough dues in anxiety and sleepless nights, wasted costly amounts of paint before realising you could have mixed an almost infinite number of colours from just half a dozen tubes, when you have splashed around litres of ‘environmentally friendly’ solvent (all from that thriving art supply store), and your palette of leftovers has greater aesthetic appeal than your current work-in-progress, then and only then – you may emerge with a few basic skills. Not many. Just enough to tentatively and in muted tones (secondary colours in visual speak), declare yourself ‘an artist’. You may even, daringly, ditch the paintbrushes in favour of more esoteric mediums that come under the headings of  ‘found objects’ (someone else’s junk) and ‘performance art’ (self as the medium – ditch the middleman). Just for the record, I’m a big fan of both.

This momentous coming out as a bone fide artist entails new trajectories of insecurity. “What do you do?” “I’m a contemporary artist,” you might mumble, wanting to be true and steadfast to your calling, but hoping nevertheless not to be audible above the steadily rising noise of the party throng. “Oh, an artist!” The phrase hangs awkwardly in the air, the silence speaking volumes, and not in a John Cage kind of way.

Once, a carpenter (who had no doubt learned the wisdom of treating everyone as a prospective client), valiantly kept the conversation going by asking me what sort of art I did – quickly adding – “Not that installation shit, do you?”

No, I wanted to tell him (secretly deeply impressed that he was aware of something called “installation” art). Definitely not. Strictly gum trees and early Australiana, rickety wooden structures held together by pioneering forbearance that hadn’t seen a carpenters’ restoring hand in decades. Bonus if I can get in a body of nearby stagnant water (such scope for adroit reflections).

Now I do enjoy a good gum tree painting – and the really fabulous ones – Will Robinsons’ enveloping, gravity defying, in-your–face eucalypts are sublime, but alas I don’t paint them; and as luck would have it, at the time of the discussion with my carpenter mate, had just disassembled an installation. It was a heavy duty, conceptually driven work that had taken me the best part of a year to complete. Lack of internal fortitude however prevented me from divulging this information to him. It was a bridge that was, sadly, just too far. “I’m pretty good with a hammer and drill”, I wanted to say instead. “Does that count?”